Unbound Delegates Could Hold Key to Stopping Trump at Convention

Unbound Delegates Could Hold Key to Stopping Trump at Convention
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The ultimate result of the 2016 presidential election could yet rest on the likes of Erling “Curly” Haugland, 69, a businessman from Bismarck, North Dakota, who will be one of the 2,472 delegates to the Republican party convention in July. And he isn’t saying what he’ll do.

“I wouldn’t know until the day of the first ballot [at the convention in Cleveland, Ohio] because a lot can happen between now and then,” he said.

With the Republican party in uproar over the runaway primary lead of billionaire property mogul Donald Trump, the role of convention delegates could be crucial in deciding who faces Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee.

Many Republican grandees believe Trump would be doomed to defeat at the hands of Clinton. A few even fear he could be a “plant” by Democrats, given his past liberal positions, his seven financial donations to Clinton campaigns and her attendance with husband Bill at his third wedding in 2005.

In vehemently denouncing Trump last week, Mitt Romney, the defeated 2012 Republican nominee tacitly sketched out a “contested convention” scenario whereby the front-runner’s three remaining rivals stayed in the race to deny him the chance of getting the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

“Given the current delegate selection process, this means that I would vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr Trump in a given state,” Romney said.

Before Saturday, Trump had 329 delegates compared to 231 for Texas senator Cruz, 110 for Florida senator Marco Rubio and 25 for John Kasich, the governor of Ohio.

On March 15th, the race reaches a critical stage when delegates are allocated on a “winner takes all” basis in states like Florida and Ohio. Kasich is well positioned to win his home state while Rubio trails in opinion polls in his. If both can overhaul Trump that day, then a contested convention becomes a real prospect.

Modern party conventions have become scripted showpieces with delegate votes a formality. The last time a Republican nominee was chosen after a delegate “floor fight” was in 1948, when Thomas Dewey emerged victorious.

Haugland is one of just 112 Republican delegates who are “unbound” because their states and territories – North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, American Samoa and Guam – hold no primaries or caucuses. Instead, delegates are chosen at state convention without reference to voters’ views on the presidential candidates.

That opens up the prospect of them immediately swinging behind other candidates even if Trump arrives at Cleveland with a lead in the delegate haul.

If no candidate has secured 1,237 votes after a first ballot then the vast majority of delegates are “freed” to vote for whoever they want.

This would trigger a frenzy of horse-trading among party bosses and could even result in the emergence of a new candidate who wasn’t even on primary ballots. Critics of Romney suggest that he harbours hopes of being the kind of “white knight” figure who is call upon to be his party’s saviour.

Most delegates have not yet been chosen but Erling is guaranteed a slot because he is one of 168 members of the Republican National Committee (RNC). In nearly every state, RNC members are bound to vote for the candidate who won there – but not North Dakota.

Joe Miller, 32, a corn and soy bean farmer and state senator from Park River, North Dakota, was elected as a delegate in 2012. He said that if he’s a delegate this year he would plan to cast his ballot for Cruz, a firebrand who alienated colleagues on Capitol Hill by refusing to countenance compromise.

“He came to Washington not wanting to toe the line always and to break some stuff up and he's shown he has the courage to do that,” Miller said. “Trump’s whole life has been building up his brand, which is attached to nothing other than himself and his ego.”

Ben Ginsberg, a veteran Republican campaign lawyer who was instrumental in machinations during the Florida recount of 2000 that helped hand George W. Bush the presidency, said that a contested convention remained “a real long shot” but was “more possible than at any time in the modern era”.

A new rule adopted at the 2012 Republican convention should prevent delegates “going rogue” and voting for a candidate other than the one they’re bound to, as some “faithless delegates” did in 1976 when they deserted Gerald Ford for Ronald Reagan.

“How wild and woolly it is really depends on how far from getting the 1,237 the front runner is. If somebody is at 1,220, that’s really different from somebody at 1,120.”

Preparing for a potentially contested convention was a step in the dark for the surviving campaigns. "The vast majority of the delegates aren't chosen until state conventions or state executive committee meetngs and they tend to state in late March and can go as late as May or June," said Ginsberg.

"It's an ugly process if you're one of the campaigns and you've go to go out to 40 diff states to see who the delegates are. A few states let the candidates submit slates that are then automatically ratified so you do assume the campaigns are competent in picking loyalists there."

A problem for Trump might be that many delegates are party loyalists. In North Dakota, factors such as party donations and running for office as a Republican are factors in delegate choice.

Haugland, the unbound NorthDakota delegate, who is a member of the RNC rules committee, maintains that any delegate can do what they want because no penalties are laid down. “You don't get shot or hung if you break the rules. You don't even get jailed over the weekend.”

Moreover, if its chooses to do so, the convention rules committee can throw out all the existing rules. But to do this could merely fuel support for Trump.

Russ Schriefer, a Republican consultant who has worked on six presidential campaigns, said such chicanery could lead to civil unrest, as there was during the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 when anti-war protesters clashed with the police.

“There will be riots in the streets of Cleveland,” he told the New York Times. “ All these Trump people are so whipped up, and then you have the party establishment giving the nomination to the person with the second or third most delegates?”

Deadlines for getting names on ballots and state “sore loser” laws make it unlikely that Trump could mount a third-party bid beginning at the end of July.

Florida is set to become ground zero in the battle to stop Trump, with anti-Trump groups pouring millions into attack ads portraying him as con man and a charlatan. Their effort was given added impetus by Trump’s refusal last weekend to disavow the racist terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan and the notorious white supremacist David Duke.

Liz Mair, head of “Make America Awesome”, one of the leading anti-Trump groups, scored a success yesterday when Trump withdrew from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) after she circulated a petition protesting his appearance and organised a walk-out.

She said it was still possible to stop Trump “but with each passing day, it gets a lot harder”. There were efforts by at least two rival campaigns, she said, to “give [Trump] delegates plenty of cover” to support other candidates after a first ballot at the convention.

Equally, the 112 unbound delegates could be an enticing pool for Trump to fish in to win a first ballot if he went into the convention close to the magic 1,237. Miller said: "He would never be my first choice. I'm nervous because I don't know what he wants to do.

"But if Trump was very close and there were procedural moves and things got drawn out - coercion and what have you - I would probably be willing to get behind him. That would just ruin the party's reputation."

Haugland, who was in Washington for CPAC, said he relished the prospect of a contested convention and delegates acting independently to vote their conscience. “I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen. We’re in uncharted waters.”

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.

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